In previous discussions we looked at the purpose of salvation and whether it was a gift or a task. With this discussion we begin to look at the how of salvation rather than the why, and since the Gospels only really give a description of the Resurrection we take our Biblical point of departure at Paul’s Epistles. Of the following key passages we explored both ‘What does salvation consist in?’ and ‘What are we saved for?’
Romans 3:22-6 (CEV)
“God treats everyone alike. He accepts people only because they have faith in Jesus Christ. All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. But God treats us much better than we deserve, and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins. God sent Christ to be our sacrifice. Christ offered his life’s blood, so that by faith in him we could come to God. And God did this to show that in the past he was right to be patient and forgive sinners. This also shows that God is right when he accepts people who have faith in Jesus.”
Ephesians 2:1-10 (ESV)
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ -by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
(We also looked at Ephesians 1:3-14)
Romans 8:1-4; 14-25 (ESV)
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. …
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs- heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
From these readings it became clear to us that Paul -and by extension the New Testament- did not have a view of salvation that could be expressed simply as a single teaching. Given that the composition of the Epistles spanned a few decades this should be unsurprising. What is more surprising is that different traditions of thought on salvation that developed in subsequent centuries (the subject of the next discussion) can be found here in embryonic form alongside each other. Different views of salvation are bound up with a number of dichotomies such as whether salvation is a status which can be possessed or an ongoing process, whether salvation is in the present or the future, and whether it applies to individuals or to groups. Of course these pairs are not mutually exclusive.
In Romans 3 Paul is contrasting his view with the Jewish sacrificial rituals through which people believed they could earn salvation. He uses the present tense about implying that since Christ’s death salvation is accessible here and now. This implies that redemption and justification before God are complete for those who believe (though there may be other aspects of salvation that are to be completed in the future). Interestingly, Paul speaks of people receiving these graces collectively as the community of believers (the Church), rather than individuals. Moreover, “God treats everyone alike.” Perhaps more surprisingly, while he emphasises the bloody nature of Christ’s sacrificial death, Paul doesn’t say that this was a necessary punishment but rather a proof of God’s forgiveness of sinners.
Ephesians 1:4-6 says that with love God chose us in Christ “before the foundation of the world” that we should be adopted as his children. Verses 7-10 say that for salvation God has “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” This implies that although this like -earth- is important, salvation is a very gradual and cosmic process. As would be expected with such a view, Paul speaks of people collectively. Salvation is about a lot more than just getting my personal relationship with God right. Like Romans 3, this chapter also links the sacrifice of Jesus to forgiveness rather than punishment.
The next chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians moves from images of family and cosmic union to the Johannine language of new life. Paul speaks of this in the present tense, implying that Christians have eternal life as a quality within this earthly existence. He even goes so far as to say that we are saved already, having been raised up by God and seated with Christ in heaven. Obviously this is poetic language, and indeed Paul links this to ” the coming ages”. As in Romans, Paul is adamant that salvation is not earned through works, but at the end of this selection he decisively proclaims that God created us for the purpose of doing good works- so it is clear that he believes this is essential to the Christian faith.
Romans 8 combines all of the above with a few new themes. Jesus, through his death and Resurrection, is a liberator who has set us free from the Law as well as from sin and death. Liberation is linked to asceticism through a dualistic picture of life as containing a fundamental option between being ‘of the flesh’ or ‘of the spirit’. But rather than advocating complete liberation from the world, the ascetic life of acceptance of suffering is linked to salvation through the suffering of Jesus in whose cosmic body the whole of creation is gradually being renewed. In this way God’s empathy is a consolation in the present and a source of future hope.